I'm finally catching up on my blogging and website. It has been a very busy summer for me personally. COVID definitely added a layer of complexity to life. On top of this, two of my children had weddings recently. If anyone has had children get married you know what kind of effort that is - this was times two. One of the weddings was at our home, so my To Do list was very long. One project I finally finished was building concrete benches, which is what can be seen in the photo above. I created a stencil of the Back Forty Bees logo and added it to the bench top (I stained the whole thing later).
A fun aspect of my kid's new spouses was the addition of a beekeeper. Above, my new son-in-law is inspecting his hive with me (looking for the queen actually). It is nice to have a fellow beekeeper in the family.
For beekeeping, it was a good year for honey, but very wet in my area (72 inches and counting, according to my rain gauge). I had more problems with small hive beetles than typical and I think this was due to the weather. Nuc production did well this year, in the photo above I had to double stack some of the nucs for folks who delayed picking up their bees. I'll catch up more as we move into Autumn and life steadies out a bit.
This is a bit long...but a good read!
This past week I completed a trip down to Georgia to pick up packages for delivery here in Virginia. Every year has its little issues, but this year was a bit different. The way down was smooth as could be, even with the extra anxiety over COVID-19. Most of the way I was worried that a state or federal order would be issued while I was on my way up to Virginia, preventing the distribution of the bees. In my head, I was running through a lot of scenarios of how I would handle this.
Once in Georgia, I dropped the trailer at the apiary, checked the packages out (they were shook that day) and made arrangements for me to hook up and leave by 6:00 AM the next morning. This was really early and I am grateful to the folks at Rossman for working with me. I was a little worried about the weight of the trailer when we hooked it up (see the photo), but it turns out this was just uneven ground – the tongue weight was fine on the truck. This was obvious once I pulled onto the pavement. BUT, when inspecting this we noticed that one of the tires on the trailer was low. Apparently, we ran something over in the yard, so the first stop of the day was refilling the tire (and then monitoring it the rest of the trip, it was a slow leak). These were brand new tires that I had put on the trailer three weeks ago for the trip no less…
Once on the road, it was smooth going, until South Carolina. Along the entire length of I-95, this is the worse section to travel. It is all two lanes, and with all respect to SCDOT, it is really poorly maintained. There are more bumps, potholes, and roadway shoulder collapses than any other state. Also, the trees are not cut back far from the road (many overhang it), which creates a tunnel effect (though it does look pretty).
Traffic northbound was extremely heavy. I texted someone and said “I blame the Canadians,” though I was only half kidding. Every third car was from Ontario, Quebec, and even Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Canadians were fleeing COVID-19 in the US and returning to be home (NPR ran an article about this today).
Anyway, between the poorly maintained road and the traffic, there were multiple major accidents and many slowdowns due to fender benders. I lost hours and hours sitting in traffic in South Carolina. It took nearly 13 hours to travel from Georgia to Emporia, Virginia (a trip that should only take about 9). In Emporia I stop and transfer some bees to another trailer for distribution in Suffolk, VA. This went quickly as I had the trailer loaded in three sections for each major stop.
After this, I fueled and “aired” up and got on the road to Northern Virginia. My wife was supposed to meet me in Richmond to continue the ride, but at this point, things seemed smooth, my friend had done most of the driving (by design) to this point and I felt good. I was irrationally confident…
On the 95 passing Fredericksburg, I tapped the brakes while going down a hill – and the pedal went all the way to the floor! My heart dropped, but the trailer brakes were working fine, and I had about 5% braking power left. With no choice here I dropped down to 50 miles per hour, exited at Exit 130, and crawled around the corner, parking near a Pep Boys. I texted my next drop off that I was going to be late and started making calls for a 24-hour repair crew. I also called my backup (a friend), got his wife, and explained that I was in a bind, can I borrow his truck. Oh, and I’m just north of Fredericksburg. And also, I’m hauling a trailer full of nearly 6 million bees. Want to see how good of a friend you have, make this call… Bill and Ron (two friends – how awesome is that) jumped in the truck and started heading to me.
As they drove, I found a 24 mobile mechanic and had him head my way. I unhooked the trailer and started emptying the truck of my equipment. How much equipment? Well a lot. I have contingency plans and equipment for just about everything – cooling for the bees (when stuck in warm weather traffic), repair kits, roadside safety equipment, etcetera).
Ron and Bill arrived just before the mechanic. We realized that Bill’s truck had a different size ball joint, so we worked on changing the hitches (one was stuck, but I had tools for that!). As we were doing this the mechanics arrived. The consensus was a brake cylinder was busted on the passenger side front, the truck was out of brake fluid, and it could not be repaired there. So, Ron stayed with the truck to get it home and Bill and I got on the road. An hour and a half later, we arrived at my stop in NoVA (at 1:30 in the morning). We unloaded for a half an hour and got back on the road back down to Williamsburg, VA (a little over 3 hours away). According to Google Maps, we got back at 5:42 AM. At this point, I had been awake for over 24 hours, with a few cat naps in between (and yes, Bill drove back).
I set the bees for the night, went to sleep for an hour (kind of) and then got back in the truck for distribution in Williamsburg. This went smooth – people arrived in their assigned window (to promote social distancing) and we were able to hand out all the packages. Truth be told, I was a bit sleep deprived and miscounted the packages at one point, which caused a panic as I was “short by about 100”. I was tired, all the counts were on, including the extras I have as a buffer for issues.
Handing out the packages and chatting with new beekeepers energizes me! And I really like talking to the young kids that people bring with them. Staying six feet apart made this harder this year, but I got by. There are always honey bee stragglers on the outside of cages, and I use these as a teaching tool, explaining drones vs workers, to the kids, who think is is way cool.
All in all, it was an adventure. You never tell the stories about how you drove from Georgia to Virginia and everything was fine and boring. You do tell the stories like this, and after it all worked out, you can do it with a smile, a bit of a laugh, and mentally add a new and improved contingency plan for a total mechanical failure while on the road…
I get asked about protective gear quite a bit, so here are my thoughts for new backyard beekeepers. First, unless you are allergic or really nervous, you don’t need a suit. Stick to a jacket or veil. Now, as to the type, I’ve used a few. In the top left is a simple veil – I keep these around because they are handy, lightweight, and useful when just doing something simple. In the bottom right is the “standard” or “budget” jacket made out of cotton and poly. I’ve used it for years and it works, but in Hampton Roads, Virginia it is really, really hot in the summer. So, I’ve moved on to ventilated fabrics. There are two leaders here (though many others) – PROVent and Ultra Breeze. I’ve used both and prefer the Ultra Breeze, though both work fine. The Ultra Breeze cools better for me, has higher quality zippers, the hood is slightly better in shape, and (yes, this is a pet peeve) they do not slap a giant non-breathable logo on the chest! At the end of the day, buy what you can afford and wear what makes you comfortable working with your hives…even if that is a full suit.
One of my hives caught my eye today – there was a ton of activity at it. I thought at first “Uh oh, dead out being robbed”. But, on closer inspection it is simply a booming hive. This one will be an early split - I peaked inside and it is packed full of bees. Note the video is slow motion for first 10 seconds, speeds up to zoom in, and then a full minute of slow motion at the entrance. There is just something mesmerizing about watching honey bees in slow motion.
It was in the 70's last week in Williamsburg, which means the bees all broke cluster and enjoyed some cleansing flights. There is a risk with the warm/cold cycle of days as we go into January and February. The bees will use more resources (honey) when they break cluster. To help them through the winter I put dry sugar on the inner cover. This absorbs moisture, as well as provides emergency food. How much they use it varies by hive (size, stores, etc). The hive in this photo went into winter very strong and I was not surprised to see some bees on the inner cover when I checked them.
Well, it was all kinds of pretty before I got it stuck in the pot. I'll probably render the wax one last time. Candle making occupies my winter and my wax!
When inspecting a frame last week I came across the girls taking out an unwanted guest! I took a video of it, but fat fingers on the phone led to a video fail, though I did get this photo! Sometimes it gets repetitive inspecting frame after frame and it is interesting to see something different (even if not that unusual).
This was an interesting cutout I completed on a three-story building, so I completed the work in a cherry picker. Not wanting to go up and down, I had a lot of equipment with me - the bee vacuum, plenty of hive bodies, frames for placing comb, buckets for discarded comb, etc. I had quite an audience for a while of construction workers and people walking by. The contractor I did the work for had contemplated doing the cutout himself and after seeing the work done he said "No way, no how, no sir!" - he is not a beekeeper... The hive was (is) beautiful, with tons of brood, honey, and pollen. No evidence of small hive beetles. The space had bees removed in previous years by others, but I think they left a lot of old comb. The wood showed evidence of a pretty decent wax moth infestation. The colony was relocated and doing great, with a very productive queen.
Many new beekeepers often wonder if their hive is being robbed. Often times, it is actually an orientation flight (which I most often observe around 4:00 pm). In this video, you can see actual robbing behavior. Note the massive amount of bees going into the nuc and not orienting (doing figure eights). Bees leaving the nuc are also climbing up before taking off (because they are loaded with honey/nectar). Also observe the bees on the grass in front of the nuc. Other signs include bees fighting in front of the entrance and a large amount of wax cappings in front of the entrance. You can also see in this video bees attempting to enter the hive through a small gap in the cover. Robbing often starts this way. As I pan to the right, you will see a hive that the day before experienced robbing. With this hive I installed a robbing screen and it quickly put an end to the robbing. My friend Ron made this screen for me because, as he puts it, my robbing screens are shameful. For those wondering, the nuc being robbed is a laying worker nuc (queen failed and I missed it) that I had not yet shaken out. I don't try to save laying worker hives - it is not worth the time.
Some nice photos of my bees working Speedwell Veronica (Icicle). For the last few years, I've been planting pollinator plants to bloom at different times of the year.
Just sharing a good photo of drone brood for new beekeepers. You can clearly see the dome capped cells of the drones. To the far right of the image there are capped worker cells.
This is a slow-motion video of workers coming and going from a hive. Most beekeepers like to stand around and watch their bees work, and I'm no exception. There is something wonderful and fascinating seeing them work.
There was some cross comb in this hive and I knocked out some larvae while going through it. I worked down to the bottom board to clean that off from winter and saw these girls already moving out larvae that fell to the bottom. The industriousness of bees is awesome!
This is a lovely brood pattern by an overwintered nuc queen! Beekeepers will appreciate this - everyone else will probably shrug... :>)
If you chase swarms, at some point you'll be faced with a swarm high up in a tree. One way to reach them is through a simple setup. You will need a painters extension pole, the roller on the end, duct tape, and a 5 gallon (or similar) bucket. I was trying to explain this on a group and was asked if I could sketch it out, thus the high quality drawing above. Basically, you put the roller on the extension, duct tape the bucket handle to the roller (allow it to roll freely, so the bucket remains plumb) and you have your swarm catcher. Stand 3 to 5 feet to the side of the swarm, extend the pole under it, then firmly bump the branch and swarm so it falls in the bucket. Lower the pole and dump the bees in a hive (or nuc, whatever). If you got the queen, the rest of the swarm will fly down in a bit. A simple way to know if you did is the workers will line up at the entrance with their tales in the air fanning. If you missed her you may need to repeat this a couple of times. If you don't know what a painters extension pole is, I have a link to one below (buy a cheaper one). Good luck!
Link to a pole at Home Depot
I've built a number of queen mating nucs, a modified version of my five frame nucs. Basically I've added a dividing board to turn it into a couple of two frame mating nucs. Entrances are on opposite sides and I do have holes drilled in the top for feeding.
On Monday I did a full inspection of nearly all my hives. I like this photo because it is like a highlight reel - queen, brood, nectar, pollen, pretty comb, propolis, and plenty of bees! So far (knock on wood), I've had phenomenal survival over the winter. By straight math, ~5% deadouts, and that is including some hives I probably should have merged in the fall. Overall I'm very happy. One last note, I already have drone brood in some hives.
I finished assembling 25 nuc boxes this afternoon as I've expanded my nuc production this year (and almost sold out even so). Now for the boring part - painting. These boxes last years; the old box in the top left is 3 years old (with a mismatched lid) and has no serious issues. I use exterior grade plywood (not pressure treated), with prime and paint. The red painted line is actually a sideways letter I. To keep track of the nucs and also to create a unique front to assist with orientation flights I cycle through the alphabet painted on using a template. If like to build some of these yourself, I have the cut template in the Build it yourself area.
Well, not here in Virginia, but it has in parts of the United States. The National Phenology Network tracks the coming of spring based upon synthetic measures of early season events in plants, based on recent temperature conditions. These models allow them to track the progression of spring onset across the country. Check on the status of spring at their website.
I attended a presentation by Samuel Ramsey a while back on his research before it was published. It has finally become available and for beekeepers it makes an interesting and informative read for the winter. I’m certain companies are paying close attention as it has direct implications on how to control Varroa destructor. It will be years before a new product comes to market to control Varroa, but this research certainly advances our understanding and will put treatment in a new direction.
Summarized from the abstract and conclusion:
The parasitic mite Varroa destructor is the greatest single driver of the global honey bee health decline. It is not consuming hemolymph, as has been the accepted view, but damages host bees by consuming fat body, a tissue roughly analogous to the mammalian liver. The lack of success in developing effective systemic pesticides likely is because of the same issue of tissue misidentification. The development of tools, both chemical and nonchemical, to manage this pest is particularly likely to be affected by these findings. "Our study reflects a need to reexamine even the fundamentals of our knowledge of Varroa as we work to diminish its impact...Our work provides a path forward for the development of novel treatment strategies for Varroa.”
Published article title:Varroa destructor feeds primarily on honey bee fat body tissue and not hemolymph
Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/01/08/1818371116
In this video, the timeline for the Virginia Beehive Grant Program from application to receiving the hives is discussed. We also open the shipment and take a look at what is included. This hive setup is an 8-frame, medium hive body. The state contracted manufacturer is Dadant, so this is their equipment that is shown.